The right to life of climate deniers, children in poverty, and future generations
February 2017, revised January 2018
This text has not been proof-read and may contain errors.
Further information in German: link
Another text about the death penalty: link
title of my deleted 2012 blog was a
question: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?" The question was
obviously inappropriate and the answer was obviously "No". The death
penalty is never
justified, and I explained why as follows:
have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have
always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty
International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist,
expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently, it does not
even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and
China will come to their senses soon.
mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the
politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course
the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest
doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him,
that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring
the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive
at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel
differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a
had chosen a provocative title and taken a personal risk to attract
attention to a series of critically
important issues that were evidently being suppressed. How many deaths
will climate change cause, especially in developing countries? Who will
be held responsible? What will be the legal consequences? Today, little
How much longer do we have to wait for the right to life of a billion
people in developing countries to be taken seriously?
I later realised that I had intuitively applied a series of known techniques for attracting attention with headings (more). My heading was short, concise, and understandable out of context. It started with powerful keywords, addressed important current issues, asked a question, excited curiosity, and both surprised
and frightened the reader. I later realised that many people read no
further than the heading. In fact, some do not even read to the end of
a heading, which in this case was a question mark. We live and learn.
I deleted and apologized for
the blog as soon as the first complaints started to arrive just
before Christmas 2012. I did so not only because of the wild, crazy
accusations of the deniers, but also because of the ambiguous response
from some of the smart, caring people whom I had expected to support
me. Evidently, the world was not yet ready for this kind of truth.
The deletion was in vain. The blog was discovered in Google
and posted against my will at a new address. That's how I learned
that "the internet never forgets". The sensational reactions that
followed in the media and climate denial blogs referred exclusively to
that had been withdrawn and deleted.
Since then, there have been many misleading interpretations. Allow me to set the record straight.
My only intention was and still is to promote and protect human
rights. For a billion people in developing countries, climate change is
life threatening. It is also racist, because it will affect black
people more than white, although it is being caused by white people more than black. It will affect women more than men and children more than adults, making it sexist and agist. Climate change is today's biggest human rights issue, because it will affect more people than any other category of human-rights violation.
are universal. The right to life is obviously the most important
right; this point is unfortunately missing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948),
presumably due to an ambiguity about the death penalty that remains to
this day. What is clear is that everyone has the right to life, rich or
poor, black or white,
adult or child, man or woman, guilty or innocent. Influential climate
deniers have the same right to life as the children currently
living in poverty in developing countries whose future lives could be
destroyed by climate change.
My contentious blog was inspired by a decade-long academic project that I founded and led. The aim of the project was to reduce racism and xenophobia by
applying insights and findings from research in contrasting academic
disciplines and collaborating with practitioners in NGOs, government,
education and so on. The project culminated in an international conference that inspired a second conference and diverse later projects.
What does the death penalty have to do with it?
Climate change is effectively putting a billion future people on death
row. The number one billion is a rough, order-of-magnitude estimate. It
of millions of children who are alive right now in developing countries
and further hundreds of millions who will be born in coming decades. These
people will die early (as infants, children or young adults) with a
certain (high) probability as a result one or more of the
known side-effects of climate change, including rising sea levels,
freak storms, changing precipitation patterns, disappearing glaciers
affecting water supplies, ocean acidification, more frequent bushfires,
loss of biodiversity and so on. The list is long. Many of these side effects will reduce food supplies, causing famines.
Prisoners on death row find themselves in a similar situation. It is not certain that they will die, because their sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment. They
will be executed with a certain probability. The uncertainty is a cruel
aspect of an archaic form of punishment. US prisoners on
death row typically wait for ten years (more). Similarly, many people in climate-vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh
(and many other developing countries) are waiting for the day
when they become climate refugees, not knowing where if anywhere they
will live in future, or if they will survive the journey.
I am totally opposed to the death penalty for the usual, well-known reasons. One reason is inconsistency. The death penalty is supposed to be a response to the most
serious crimes, but the most serious crimes are not even
recognized as such, let alone punished. From a human rights
perspective, the biggest crime of all is to indirectly cause the deaths
of an enormous number of people. That happens
frighteningly often, and I offered
a series of examples in my 2012 blog. Enormous numbers of lives could be saved by
threatening to punish) the culprits. But the death penalty is almost always applied to people whose crimes are much smaller.
My theoretical proposal to
limit the death penalty to individuals causing a million deaths, if
adopted universally, would mean the release of all prisoners currently
on death row in all countries -- consistent with my long personal
anti-death-penalty activism as a member of Amnesty International. This
proposal additionally exposed the hypocrisy of death-penalty supporters who are
also climate deniers, including many "Christian" supporters of the US Republican
Party. Perhaps it would help if they realised that Jesus was a victim of the death penalty?
My proposal could
never be implemented, of course. Influential
death-penalty candidates can generally save themselves by pulling
strings in the background. It is unfortunately not true that "everyone
is equal before the law", but we must nevertheless strive for legal
The idea of the "death penalty for the pope" was obviously absurd. I
included it in my text only in passing, as an explanatory
counterexample. It exposed
the contradiction that is inherent
in the opinions of death-penalty supporters: if the death penalty is
appopriate for the most serious crimes, what are those crimes exactly? Thinking, feeling readers nevertheless recognized
another, more serious intention: to provoke a long-overdue public
discussion about the
implications of the Catholic condom ban. If not for that, millions of
AIDS victims would still be alive today. Tragically, neither the church
nor the general public has found the courage to talk about this
openly and honestly. Denial is not the answer. The ban is presumably
still indirectly causing thousands of AIDS deaths every year. The Wikipedia page on this topic is informative but biased, because so few people have the courage to defend the rights of the victims. This
is religious hypocrisy at his worst: preaching universal love while at
the same time indirectly causing massive suffering and death.
Christians should read their Bibles, which incidentally say nothing at
all about contraception but a lot about moral courage and avoiding
and imagine what Jesus would say about the condom ban if he was here
today. Incidentally, I am neither anti-religious nor anti-Catholic. On
the contrary, my best friends and colleagues tend to have an altruistic
orientation and for that reason have always included Christians. In
recent years, Pope Francis has been defending the rights of the poor
and opposing climate change at the highest level, for which he deserves
everyone's admiration and support.
My main aim and approach
The main intention of my text was to provoke a discussion of a problem that, from an objective human-rights perspective, is potentially the
world's most serious. In coming
decades, anthropogenic climate change will surely mean premature
death for hundreds of millions of
people. To prevent that, we need to identify the people who are
primarily responsible and force them to change their behavior, unless
they are kind enough to change voluntarily. Of course there are other
possible strategies, but to solve a problem of this magnitude, we must
focus on the most effective one.
Unfortunately, my text failed
provoke that discussion, although many people presumably realised the
deadly consequences of climate denial for the first time. As climate
change gets more serious, the probability is increasing that the most
important issues will finally be taken seriously. But a serious
discussion will not
begin until a large number of influential people finally have the
address the problem directly and publicly. That has not happened yet,
and although there are promising signs, we are still a long way off. We
will have to admit
clearly and openly that we are killing enormous numbers of future people with our emissions (more), using the word "kill" the everyday sense of ending someone's life.
Needless to say, I did not "call for the
death penalty“ for anyone, as some media and climate blogs
enthusiastically claimed, as if they did not know the difference
between a question mark and an exclamation mark. Instead, I presented
ideas and arguments. My obvious intention was promote human rights by
provoking public discussion about what may be the modern world's most serious problem(s). I clarified that "I am neither a politician nor a lawyer. I am just thinking aloud about an important problem".
I repeatedly used the word "propose"
or "proposal“, implying an invitation to discuss. This intention was correctly recognized by Austria Presse
Agentur (link). My text also included the
following disclaimer: "Please note that I am not directly suggesting
that the threat of execution be carried out. I am simply presenting a
logical argument." Many sensation-seeking commentators appear to have read these sentences and decided to ignore them.
Three premises, one conclusion
The argument that I presented in 2012 can be interpreted in different ways. One approach is to consider the logical relationship between premises and conclusion. Consider the following premises:
Premise 1. About half of the
people in the world still consider the death penalty to be justified
for the most serious crimes. We know this from surveys; the exact
proportion depends on how you ask the question. Changing their minds is
one of today's great challenges.
Premise 2. The most serious
crimes are those in which one person knowingly causes enormous numbers
of deaths. This should be obvious from a human rights perspective, in
which every life has the same value. One could also estimate the amount
of suffering or the number of (quality) life-years lost, but that would
not significantly change the present argument.
Premise 3. The most influential
climate deniers are causing or have caused enormous numbers of future
deaths. Those deaths will occur, for example, as the future death toll
in connection with poverty in developing countries rises in response to
multiple side-effects of climate change. Deniers cause future deaths by
hindering projects that would otherwise slow climate change. Many
people reject this logic, of course, and many others have not thought
about it. To my knowledge, the arguments I presented here and here are
basically correct, although the details could be improved. I have been
trying in vain for years to discover valid counterarguments. My claims
satisfy the scientific criterion of falsifiability, but no one seems
able to falsify them.
If all three premises are true, then for those people who (erroneously)
believe in the death penalty for the most serious crimes (premise 1),
"death penalty for climate deniers" is merely a logical conclusion.
Needless to say, I am opposed to this conclusion, because I am opposed
to premise 1. In general, the conclusion can be changed if we
change any one of the three premises.
Changing premise 1 means convincing death penalty supporters that the
death penalty is never justified. That is the aim of anything that I
have ever written about the death penalty. The outraged public reaction
to my 2012 blog suggested that I made some progress. First,
many climate deniers realized that the death penalty is never
justified, after imagining being candidates themselves. Second, others
who normally never mention human rights suddenly started to talk about
I don’t believe premise 2 can be changed. From a human rights
perspective, it is obviously correct, and I am not aware of any other
Nor do I believe premise 3 can be changed. The deniers will continue to
deny the causal connections, of course. Their behavior is complex and
resists a simple explanation. According to psychological theory of moral development, some of them are immature (selfish, dishonest, opportunist, irresponsible). Others may be gullible or lacking in skills of critical thinking. In any case, the law should expose and punish such profound examples of irresponsibility, to protect the rights of others.
However hard they try, the deniers cannot change the logical
relationship between the above conclusion and premises. I did not
create this relationship. I could cite literature to demonstrate
that all elements of the argument existed in advance. I merely put
together the pieces of the jigsaw, and then found the courage to defend
the right to life of a billion people.
Right now, hardly anyone is showing that courage, so things can only improve. Please join me.
Limiting the death penalty as a step toward ending it (more)
I became aware of the legal and ethical problems surrounding the death
penalty in the 1980s, I have opposed it unconditionally. Since the 1990s, I
have been a member of Amnesty International, first in the
UK and then in
Austria. During that time, I have participated in
countless urgent actions and letter
writing campaigns to stop the death penalty -- both in specific cases and
universally. From 1999 to 2010 my yearly donation to Amnesty Austria
€87,20 (converted from
Austrian shillings), and since 2011, I have donated €100 Euros
Amnesty is more important today than ever. We need your
support. Please consider a yearly donation.
In my scandalous blog, I proposed limiting the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths. That
was the main point and my whole text revolved around it. The idea
was to attract attention to the massive human cost of climate
change. A billion human lives are on the line.
there was an interesting twist. If such a proposal were
accepted internationally, the result would probably be what we
anti-death-penalty activists have been working toward for decades: the
total end of the death
penalty. First, all
criminals on death row in all countries would be saved.
with the possible consequences of implementing the new agreement, even hard-core death-penalty supporters would
change their minds. The penny would finally drop.
penny might drop, too. People might finally realise that for political
reasons the death penalty can never be applied according to
legal principle of proportionality in criminal law -- the idea that the
size of a punishment should reflect the size of the crime. It would become clear that there are people in
our midst who knowingly but indirectly cause enormous numbers of
deaths, but are never prosecuted. Others are executed for smaller
crimes such as murder (of one person), drug trafficking, rape, blasphemy, treason, and
so on. If the death penalty is not being
applied proportionally, it
should not be applied at all.
The idea of
limiting the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths was
two principles: proportionality in criminal law, and the equal value of every
human life. Both principles are accepted
quasi-universally, so logically their combination should also be
universally accepted. The only open question is the size
of the number one million, which of course is arbitrary.
This kind of thinking can explain why the death penalty is still seriously proposed as a punishment for genocide by some legal
What exactly they think the death penalty will achieve in this or any
other case is unclear, but they somehow consider it to be "legitimate".
In a legal context, it would be practically impossible to accuse a
climate denier of causing a million deaths. Attribution would be very
difficult. There are too many uncertainties surrounding the future of
global climate, the (social/political) causal connection between
climate denial and emissions, and the (physical) causal connection
between emissions and climate change. In this scenario, the accused
would always be able to argue that the proposed connections are too
uncertain. They could get around arguments based on risk assessment
theory, because there is little precedent for such quantitative
arguments in law. All of this would happen as if the hundreds of
millions of victims of global warming did not exist.
The world's biggest problem
warming could cause a
billion deaths over a period of a century. The death penalty could
cause a hundred thousand deaths in the same period. If that is true,
global warming is ten thousand times more serious than the death
penalty, assuming that every life has the same value. Global warming
should therefore receive ten thousand times more attention than the
Climate change caused by our emissions
is effectively killing some ten million future people every year. For those who
have been following the public discourse about climate change and
poverty, this is hardly a surprising claim. The surprising thing is that almost
nobody is talking about these future deaths, although objectively
speaking they could be the world's biggest problem and much more
important than the economic or even the ecological consequences of
climate change. Another surprising thing
is that published estimates of future death tolls are usually either underestimated or suppressed (and hence unknown).
The foundations for a rational discussion are in place. Most people
agree that human lives are the most important value that we have and
every human life has the same value. Most
people also agree that people are more important than money (even if
their actions suggest a different attitude). All we need do is apply
these moral foundations to our present situation, and consider the
implications. It should be easy.
reason for our silence might be guilt. Just about everyone in rich
countries is guilty of contributing more than their fair share to climate
change. That includes the climate researchers. None of
us want to admit our guilt. But if we don't, we won't solve the problem.
The response to my text
My 2012 blog exposed the massive guilt of climate deniers. They reacted by applying their carefully acquired skills in truth distortion, combining cyberbullying with victim blaming.
Their attempt to make me look guilty and evil was a strategy to divert
attention from their own guilt and malice. Well, they can try as hard
as they like to ruin my reputation, but I am not about to give up
defending the fundamental rights of a billion people.
uproar that followed the discovery of my scandalous text was surprising when you consider that I had presented an idea that most
people in the world, and even most people in liberal Western Europe,
would immediately agree with: to limit
the death penalty to people who cause enormous numbers of deaths. I merely considered the
implications, asking which
people in the world might be candidates if the death penalty were
limited in this way.
were as shocked as I was by my conclusions. But it was my
intention to shock, in the hope that the world's most important
problems would at last be taken seriously. Wake up, world. Hopefully,
many people realised (perhaps even for the first time) that
climate denial is the most important social and political force behind
climate change, (ii) climate change will probably indirectly kill
hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, and (iii) the death
never justified. A new formulation of this argument can be found here.
People expected me to defend myself. I
was reluctant to do so, because the right to life of hundreds of
millions of children in developing countries is obviously more
important than my reputation. If I was going to defend
anything, it was the basic rights of an enormous number of people. That is also what my self-righteous
critics should have done -- and should still be doing.
Instead, and in the midst of what I later learned was a "shitstorm", I apologized. In
retrospect, that was inappropriate. How can one apologize for
defending the right to life of a billion people?
I should have
publicly explained how and why so many people had misunderstood my text
-- either deliberately or accidentally. Perhaps like this:
- I strictly and actively oppose the death penalty in all conceivable cases -- unlike many
of the climate deniers who were attacking me (many of whom also supported the US Republican Party).
- My main goal was to attract attention to what is perhaps the
biggest "elephant in the room" of all time: the causal link between
climate denial and the future premature deaths of hundreds of millions
- If we want to attract attention to the world's most important neglected issues, we need extreme approaches.
As I wrote near the start of my original text (GW = global warming):
without GW (or ignoring the small amount that has happened so far), a
billion people are living in poverty right now. Every five seconds a
child is dying of hunger (more).The United
Nations and diverse NGOs are trying to solve this problem, and making
some progress. But political forces in the other direction are
stronger. The strongest of these political forces is GW denial.
was accused of a shopping list of things that I
never did. I should have expected that. I was
deniers, and lying is what they do for a living -- on behalf of, and
funded by, the rich fossil fuel industry. Besides, I can hardly
accuse the deniers of exaggerating when I did so myself.
German speakers -- even those who read and speak English fluently --
seemed to misunderstand the word "propose", which I used several
times. They confused it with "suggest", "call for", or even "demand".
None of these words corresponds exactly to German terms such
When I "proposed" limiting the death penalty to criminals who cause a
million deaths, which would save all criminals currently on death row
anywhere, my intention was to put an idea out there that can be
discussed (French: pro + poser); the German equivalent is zur Diskussion stellen.
When an academic writes a "research proposal", she is not
a grant agency what to do, but offering some interesting ideas and
claiming that they have potential. A "marriage proposal" is not coercive -- the other
is free to accept or reject it. When a
cook "proposes" a new desert, you don't have to eat it.
I did not
"call for" anything. Instead, I drew attention to some of the world's
most serious neglected problems. The title of my text was a question,
and the text itself mainly took the form of an argument. Consider
the following claims:
every second person in the world supports the death
penalty for the most serious crimes.
2. If our
value system is based on the equal value
of every human life, the
most serious crimes are probably those that cause the largest numbers
warming will probably cause hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of
deaths. We, the people causing the emissions, are effectively putting those people on death row. Like real
prisoners on real death rows, they will die prematurely with a certain
probability. These people are alive right now -- as children.
climate denial is probably the biggest social and political force
behind climate change. Without the denial, the problem would
probably be under control by now.
All four points include the word "probably" because much about this argument is
uncertain. But arguments are normally uncertain (otherwise
would be no need to argue) and the uncertainty does not change
fact that the lives of a
billion people are threatened. That
is a fact, so the word "probably" is not necessary.
than "calling for" something, I presented and discussed these
crucial issues and considered their connections and implications,
while at the same time emphasizing that I am opposed to the death
penalty in all cases. I
invited people to talk about taboo topics, which can explain the
contradictory responses to my text: people are generally reluctant to talk
about points 1 and 2, and
usually refuse to talk about 3 and 4. But the problems will
solved until we emerge from our denial and start to talk about
Climate deniers and the media gleefully reported that I had
"called for" the death penalty for certain people. The motivation
behind this lie was ultimately financial. Deniers make money out of
their links to the fossil fuel industry; part of their "job" is to
destroy the reputations of their opponents. The media make money out of
In fact, I was drawing attention to the right to life of a billion
people -- children living right now in developing countries, as well as
future generations. It is even
to promote their rights than it is to end the death penalty,
because they are so much more numerous. Imagine this: if China
continued to secretly execute a thousand people per year for a century,
the result would be 100 000 preventable deaths. But global
is likely to indirectly cause a billion deaths over the course of a
century. From this we may conclude, basing our argument on the equal
value of every human life, that the problem of global warming is 10 000
times bigger than the problem of the death penalty. Although deaths in connection with climate change are not
intended, the two cases are similar in that we know that we are
causing the deaths, and we are capable of preventing them. In summary, we can say that both
projects -- stopping
the death penalty and stopping global warming -- are enormously
important. But given the
limited resources of those who care about these problems, we also have
consider priorities and should therefore channel more resources into
the climate problem.
My statement was not out of the blue. During the previous decade, I had
been coming increasingly aware of a basic ethical
problem. What is more important to me personally --
the basic rights of a billion children in developing countries, or my
well-being? If I had a chance to promote their rights, but only by
risking my well-being, would I do it? Hopefully I am not the only one asking that question.
From 2000 to 2010, I was
politically active in
the area of interculturality and anti-racism, culminating in an
international conference (cAIR10).
But I can only do this work of this kind in my limited spare time. So I
decided to try to identify today's most important issues on focus on
them (more). If
human lives are the
foundation of our value system and every human life is equally
valuable, the problem of child mortality is evenmore
serious than everyday racism. Every day, over 10 000 children die
unnecessarily in developing countries, mostly from hunger. Over ten
thousand children, every day. Every single death is a tragedy.
In the rich countries, we are living our lives as if this is not
happening. This "poverty denial" is comparable with climate
denial. The good news is that the preventable child mortality rate has
been falling, slowly but surely, for decades. The bad news is
climate change will make it
increase again and could double
by the end of the century. This approximate prediction follows directly
knowledge about physical, social and political aspects of the
situation. But almost everyone is ignoring the future death toll in
connection with climate change.
We are quietly refusing to consider the number of people that will
suffer and die as a
result. Instead we are talking about other aspects of
climate change -- or avoiding the topic altogether.
What I did not know in 2012, as I wrote my scandalous text, was that
climate deniers already had a lot of experience
harassing leading climate scientists (more).
After discovering my text, they jumped at the chance to add me to their
list, which I guess could
be interpreted as a compliment.
For those who want to
read my original text, it is linked to my wiki pages. I am reluctant
to recommend it, because a few passages should never have been written,
and I was unable to change them. Nor could I delete the text from the internet, because after
deleted it, someone found it in
Google Cache and published it elsewhere against my will. From this I
learned that the internet
never forgets. Later,
I realised that the text itself (warts and all) is my best defence
against the nonsense that has been written about it, so perhaps it is
just as well that it can still be found.
The right to life of a
penalty was not the main theme of my statement. It was merely a
hook to attact attention. My main aim -- and I made it clear from the
emphasized it repeatedly -- was to defend the basic rights of a billion
future victims of global warming. Our emissions are putting these
people on death row. Their rights are being ignored, as if they did not
The number one billion may seem like an exaggeration. I do not believe
that it is, as I will explain. But even if it is, the precautionary
principle suggests that we would still be talking about the
biggest problem in today's world.
emissions suddenly stopped, the earth's temperature would continue
to rise for a few decades, causing hundreds of millions of
future deaths -- spread out across a few or several decades. Assuming
that climate denial is the main reason why the fossil fuel industry was
not suppressed decades ago, as it should have been according to the
science at the time, it follows that climate denial
caused hundreds of millions of deaths. If we combine modern research on
with knowledge about global agriculture, maintenance of fresh water
supplies, population growth, international migration,
and the causes of conflict and violence, we can predict with reasonable
confidence that roughly one billion people will die prematurely later
this century as an
indirect result of the human
emissions that are currently in the atmosphere.
this estimate can be criticized, it is only because it is so
approximate. It is no more than an order of magnitude. We need to
imagine a world whose population has reached 10 billion and whose
resources are increasingly limited. The amount of food and fresh water
will probably still be enough for the whole world, as it is today. But
limitations due to transport, politics, and conflict will mean that
large regions will not have enough food or water for long periods.
These will usually be the poorer and/or warmer regions. Agriculture
will be severely limited by changing weather, freak storms, pollution,
water shortages in dry areas, floods in wet areas, rising sea levels
(salination of previously fertile land), and species extinction.
Fishing will be limited by increasing acidity and reduced oxygen in sea
water and pollution. Some scientists are predicting massive species
extinction both on land and in the seas -- as many as half of all
species could be extinct in a century. The resultant loss of
biodiversity will drastically affect food production. In addition,
fresh water supplies will be limited by drought, deglaciation, and
water wars. This will cause and exacerbate fatal diseases, and expand
the affected geographic areas.
Climate change feedback is a vicious cycle that increases global
warming without any additional human input. It involves methane release
from the arctic, permafrost, and hydrates; rainforest drying and forest
fires; desertification; cloud feedback; and ice-albedo feedback. If we
ignore such feedback effects and consider only anthropogenic warming,
current political and climatic trends suggest that a few
million people will die in connection with climate change toward the
end of this century. If we also consider climate change feedback, the
likely total death toll rises to billions -- perhaps a third of
world's population. These are reasonable estimates when one considers
the entire ecosystem of the earth, its obvious limitations, the growing
human population, and physical and political limitations on human
mobility. The fact that we are talking about the worst human tragedy
ever does not make the prediction any less valid.
If the size of a crime is proportional to the number of people who die
as a result, as I argued, global warming will be the worst
crime ever in human history. It will also be the worst ever case of
because "race" is evidently the reason why we are ignoring the rights
of those who are likely to die or suffer the most. If the main
predicted victims of global warming
were white, we would have done much more to solve the problem
solutions are possible, but so far no-one has a feasible plan to remove
such enormous amounts of CO2 and other
greenhouse gases from
probability of discovering a miraculous technological or biological
not high. The most likely scenario is that the predicted warming
will happen. Every decade from now until 2100, the situation
will get steadily worse.
How did it come to this? If we look carefully at the social and
political context of the past
few decades, in which annual global emissions rose steadily from year
at the same time as climate scientists were warning of the
consequences, we can see who carries the most responsibility for this
ominous development (more).
The most influential climate deniers have always
had full access to the predictions of the best climate science, and
even if they didn't, the basic principles can be understood by any
child. Greenhouse gases are like blankets in the earth's atmosphere,
and if you put more blankets on your bed, it will get warmer.
If we were serious about defending the basic rights of children in
developing countries, we would be identifying most
influential climate deniers of the past few decades and charging
them with systematically impeding projects to slow global
and thereby save millions of future lives. The legal proceedings would
within their own countries (more)
or internationally (more).
But hardly anyone has the courage to talk about this, it seems. We are
not taking the rights of a billion children seriously. The right of a
multinational cooperation to make a profit is being treated
as more important than the right of a billion
live to a reasonable age and enjoy a reasonable quality of life. What
could be more shocking than that?
Given the extreme urgency of these issues, unconventional literary
forms are justified. My 2012 text did not hurt anyone, but evidently
thousands of people (millions, for all I know) realised for the first
time that climate change is not only about polar bears -- it is a matter
of life and death for untold millions of people. If my text indirectly
reduced by 0.1% the
probability that a billion people will die prematurely as a
result of global warming, it effectively saved a million lives.
If my text reduced that probability by 0.0001%, it effectively saved a
thousand lives. These are not wild claims; they are true
statements that follow directly from risk assessment theory. They don't
make me a hero, but they do serve to underline the seriousness of the
still possible to limit the damage. The
global energy revolution is finally happening. But if we are
effectively killing a
every time we burn a thousand tons of fossil carbon (more), and if we are serious
about defending the basic rights of every human being on the planet, the revolution should be happening much faster than
was agreed in Paris.
enable a fast transition to sustainable energy, we urgently need legal
procedures to prevent
influential climate denial. A legal approach based on human
rights is possible and realistic. If Holocaust denial can be made
illegal, so can climate denial. A legal
foundation to protect the rights
of children in developing countries already exists, namely the
Declaration of Human Rights. It is widely respected and partially
implemented in many
different ways in many national legal systems.
As I wrote in my 2012 text:
A thought experiment
At the end of 2012, I guess some 200 people objected publicly to
my text, claiming or assuming incorrectly that I had “called
for” the death penalty for influential climate deniers. Perhaps
half of them contributed to internet blogs and the other half wrote
Imagine what would have happened if those 200 people had actually read
my statement -- not just the title, omitting the question mark, but the
whole thing. What if they had actually thought about it and understood
what it was really about? Imagine those 200 light bulbs lighting up.
Those 200 pennies finally dropping.
Now imagine those 200 people apologizing for their previous postings or
emails and instead objecting publicly to the future premature deaths of
a billion people in developing countries. Imagine them explaining the
indirect causal role of influential climate deniers, but also of all
residents of richer countries, in those future deaths. Imagine those
200 people understanding how we, every day, take advantage of an unfair
global economic system, and on top of that emit too much greenhouse
gas, and how that makes us responsible for the present and future
avoidable death toll in developing countries.
If that is hard to imagine, let's instead try to imagine just ten of
those people objecting publicly to the mega-fatal future consequences
of climate denial. Still hard to imagine? Perhaps just one person? This
line of thought raises an interesting question: Does anyone at all care
enough about this to be honest about it? Does anyone have the courage
to break the ice? Or have we all secretly agreed in some kind of global
conspiracy to avoid talking publicly about our guilt?
From this brief analysis, and regarding my 2012 text as a kind of
social experiment, designed to find out who if anyone has seriously
considered these issues, we can now formulate our conclusions. Many
people consider the life of an influential climate denier to be roughly
a million times more important than the life of a person living in
poverty in a developing country whose life will be shortened as a
result of climate denial. A million times! We know this because most
participants in the public discussion of my text were more unhappy
about the possible death of an influential climate denier than the
million deaths that that person apparently caused. In fact, the million
victims were not even mentioned.
Now imagine asking those 200 people what they think of the following
claim: Every human life has the same value, regardless of skin color,
gender, wealth, age, religion, and so on. Presumably, they would all
agree. Of course, they would say, it's obvious.
They would also agree that we are not talking about murder here,
because neither the influential deniers nor anyone else intends to kill
anyone: as I pointed out in my original text:
the GW deniers would point out straight away that they don't intend to
kill anyone. ... The GW deniers are simply of the opinion that the GW
scientists are wrong. ... [They are] enjoying their freedom of speech
and perhaps they sincerely believe what they are claiming. They can
certainly cite lots of evidence (you can find evidence for just about
anything if you look hard enough).
But that does not change the fact that we (and especially the
influential deniers) are knowingly causing these present and future
deaths. If those 200 people were honest (and many are), they would have
to agree with that as well.
Are we going to start talking about this? Or do we prefer to keep our
heads in the sand? An alien visitor from outer space would be
astonished at the difference between what humans say about morality and
what they actually do. A million to one! The hypocrisy is truly
I am unaware of anyone who has estimated the number of deaths that an
influential climate denier can cause. If I have missed something,
please let me know. However many writers have approached the topic from
Jean Ziegler has argued that every child who dies of hunger is
murdered. While I have the greatest respect and admiration for his
courageous and inspiring contribution, I disagree with the use of the
word "murder" in this context. There is an important difference between
negligence, however extreme, and murder. (The special status of the
Holocaust by comparison to other massive crimes involves the
premeditated nature of the killing.) But Ziegler is right that most of
those dying children (and they are dying right now as I write and you
read this — what could be more horrific than that?) could have
been saved if we in the rich countries had bothered in the past few
decades to create a fair global economic system. In the future, those
children will die because right now we are not bothering to stop global
warming. I guess an appropriate term for this extreme form of
negligence is “indirect killing”.
Philosopher John Nolt, author of an influential 2015 book on
environmental ethics, wrote a paper in 2011 entitled “How Harmful
Are the Average American's Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” in which he
calculated that the emissions of the average American today are killing
one or two future people. It's a leading example of semi-quantitative
ethics, and he is surely right.
In her book "Merchants of Doubt", Historian Naomi Oreskes brilliantly
documented the actions of past climate deniers. It will be a great day
in the history of law and justice when the main culprits are tried
according to the evidence that she and others have painstakingly
collected. If the trial is fair, they will presumably find themselves
behind bars for the rest of their lives.
Activist Naomi Klein has explained how the entire capitalist system has
to be changed to avert an unprecedented global disaster. Countless
others have contributed to this topic from many angles.
In the past few years, the frequency of news reports that consider the
present and future fatal consequences of climate change has been
rising. That is a promising development. In an article published in
September 2017, Mark Hertsgaard realized that “Climate denialism
is literally killing us”. I like this article, but disagree with
two points. First Hertsgaard uses the word “murder”, but
the climate deniers do not intend to kill anyone. Second, the number of
people who will die in the future as a result of today's climate
denialism is much higher than his implied estimates. We are talking
about hundreds of millions and possibly billions.
My all-time favorite journalist is George Monbiot. A long time ago, in
a discussion transcribed and published in May 2007, he said: “If
We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of Millions
of People to Death”. The capital letters mean the comment became
The more people have the courage to talk about this problem directly,
the more it will be taken seriously. But we are still a long way from
considering the true human consequences of influential climate
denial. It seems that most people are in denial about that
— a form of meta-denial. We are living our lives as if this was
not happening or as if we didn’t know about it. As if we were
The bottom line
In closing, allow me to make two main points.
We are talking about a
future victims of global warming are
today's children in developing countries. They really exist, right now.
They are not
"future generations", although of course future generations are also
important. The lives of a billion children living right now really will
be shortened by global
warming, which in plain English means that global warming will kill them, which
means our emissions are
killing them, which means we are killing them. That
these claims follow logically from one another is obvious; the example
could be straight from a philosophy textbook. The shocking nature of
these statements changes nothing about their truth content (whether
they are true is independent of whether they are shocking). If
actively suppress such claims or statements, we are engaging in denial
(which also follows logically from the previous statements). But we
have known about these causal relationships for several decades, and
there has never been a good excuse for denying them.
This is the most
important issue in current politics.
If we assume that every human life has the same value, and apply risk
assessment theory and order-of-magnitude estimates to this problem in a
rational way, we see that global warming, upon which everything on this planet depends, is probably more serious that all other
comparable problems of global proportions, such as for example the
rising wealth gap, the risk of nuclear holocaust, the risk of a genetically
manipulated pandemic, loss of biodiversity and holocene extinction (the earth's sixth mass extinction event, this time caused by humans), or the implications of land degradation for future food production.
It is time for the legal profession, and everyone else, to realise that
humans need food and fresh water to survive,
and global warming will irreversibly reduce both for a large proportion
of the world's growing population. The result willl be the greatest
tragedy humanity has every experienced.
not too late to prevent this mega-catastrophe, but if we are not
careful, it soon will be. The way things are going, we will look
back on the 2010s as the decade in which we missed the last opportunity
to save ourselves.
from selected emails
following texts were copied verbatim, with permission of the
authors, from emails that I received
during December 2012 and January 2013. I do not necessarily
with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my
argument regarding the death
penalty is an extreme view but I am
sympathetic. I was more surprised by how vituperative and ignorant some
people have been in response. Good on you for pointing out how research
is carried out, the motivation of scientists and the implications for
"I am always amazed how people, the so-called climate sceptics among
them, find it difficult to cope with doubts and uncertainties such as
those that you showed in your text. You gave expression to an important
moral dilemma: on one hand the refusal to kill, and the freedom of
expression, and on the other hand the fact that people make obviously
very wrong decisions that affect us all and that you want to stop. And
so they pounce on some words, take them out of context and suddenly you
seem to advocate a totalitarian view. Ah well..."
‘At any given moment
is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas
which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without
question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other,
but it is “not done” to say it, just as in
mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention
trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the
prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising
effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given
a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to
Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary
Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."
am sure you know best, that you
haven't done your masterpiece with
this article, but your intentions were good and pure. Everybody, who
knows you, knows that you are a good and honest man. As your article
shows you are also passionate about the future of your children and of
whole the mankind."
"I just wanted to let you know that I think it was a really good idea
publish your thoughts on the page of the university. I saw the death
penalty as a metapher for "this should have consequences", nothing
else…and there are no organizations on the world that caused
more pain, deaths and wars than religions. You might have read
“god is not great”…I’m really
happy someone who a few people listen too has addressed at least one
very critical topic."
you for the interesting
article. It's a sad world where you can't
even make a logical argument any more..."
Apart from the excerpts from emails, the opinions
this page are the
Suggestions for improving or extending the content
welcome at email@example.com.
Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage